Iqbal: A new beginning, an end to misconceptions

Published: December 10, 2012
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Iqbal was not a secularist, or a socialist, or opposed to democracy. PHOTO: IQBAL ACADEMY PAKISTAN

Iqbal was not a secularist, or a socialist, or opposed to democracy. PHOTO: IQBAL ACADEMY PAKISTAN

“It is a fact that a non-Muslim cannot be head of the administration in a Muslim State,” said the leader of the Congress, Sris Chandra Chattopadhya, in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on March 12, 1949. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan replied that this was not so.

True to this promise, non-Muslims remained legible for the office of prime minister in all drafts of the constitution produced by the first constituent assembly right up to its dissolution in 1954. Significantly, these drafts always mentioned that Pakistan was an Islamic state, and not a secular state.

On this ground, the founding parents of Pakistan stand in opposition to Iskander Mirza, Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who promulgated the subsequent constitutions in Pakistan, respectively in 1956, 1962 and 1973. Those constitutions required that the prime minister should be a Muslim. However, the founding fathers of Pakistan had a different concept of an Islamic state.

This is where there is a major difficulty in understanding Allama Iqbal. We tend to presume that when he advocated an Islamic state, it would have meant that non-Muslims could not have equal rights. This leads to three other misconceptions, which need to be dispelled right away.

They are: Iqbal was a secularist in some ways, or a socialist, or that he was opposed to democracy.

Misconception one: Iqbal supported secularism

Due to our misconception of an Islamic state, some of us are led to believe that all references to universal ideals in the poetry and prose of Iqbal amounted to an affirmation of secularism.

The truth is that Iqbal clarified his position on this issue repeatedly, beginning with his groundbreaking paper in 1908:

 “…according to the law of Islam there is no distinction between the Church and the State.” (‘Political Thought in Islam’; 1908)

Misconception two: Iqbal was a socialist

The idea that Iqbal was a socialist was first proposed by a journalist in 1923, and Iqbal refuted it immediately in a public statement. However, since many people believe that socialism and capitalism are the only options available to human mind, they tend to interpret all references to social justice in Iqbal’s writings as a partial approval of socialism. His position on this issue is best represented by his own words:

“Both nationalism [secularism] and atheistic socialism, at least in the present state of human adjustments, must draw upon the psychological forces of hate, suspicion, and resentment which tend to impoverish the soul of man and close up his hidden sources of spiritual energy.” (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam; 1934).

Misconception three: Iqbal was opposed to democracy

The most widespread and bizarre misconception is that Iqbal was opposed to democracy. A few of his verses are lifted out of context and quoted with complete confidence to support this assertion. Of course, the most infamous is the Urdu couplet which could be translated as: “Democracy is a form of government in which people are counted but not weighed.” Nobody bothers to look up the preceding couplet in the poem, or the footnote, where it is clearly mentioned that Iqbal is quoting a French novelist, Stendhal. Iqbal’s own opinion on the matter was:

“Democracy, then, is the most important aspect of Islam regarded as a political ideal.” (‘Islam as a Moral and Political Ideal’; 1909)

The promise

It may seem to be a contradiction that Iqbal believed in democracy and denounced theocracy, but was also opposed to secularism and socialism.

If this is a contradiction, it is also reflected in the entire history of the Muslim world since 1954 (except some Arab states). Unlike India, Muslim countries have not had smooth runs of democracy despite being free for so long. At the same time, they are equally unwilling to replicate the kind of monarchy introduced in some Arab states by European powers during the First World War.

So what do we want and how can it be achieved?

This is the enigma which Iqbal promises to solve for us. Perhaps that is why he didn’t die. He is back.

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This is a weekly web feature that will appear on The Express Tribune website.

Khurram Ali Shafique is the author of Iqbal: an Illustrated Biography (2006) and offers online courses in Iqbal Studies for Iqbal Academy Pakistan at Marghdeen Learning Centre.

Check it out

Useful resources for Iqbal Studies, including free online versions of the works of Iqbal with English translations, are available on the official website of Iqbal Academy Pakistan.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • UmEr
    Dec 10, 2012 - 6:48PM

    A very good initiative. Iqbal needs to be revived.

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  • BlackJack
    Dec 10, 2012 - 7:02PM

    “Both nationalism [secularism] and atheistic socialism, at least in the present state of human adjustments, must draw upon the psychological forces of hate, suspicion, and resentment which tend to impoverish the soul of man and close up his hidden sources of spiritual energy.” (The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam; 1934).

    First of all, nationalism is not the same as secularism; fascism is a highly nationalist political system, and many such governments have persecuted their minorities relentlessly. Second, I see no reason why either secularism or socialism must draw on hate and fear – when they in fact seek to dismantle barriers and inequalities. Secularism removes religion from the purview of the state, and says that all citizens are equal in its eyes, and the laws that are used to deliver justice are based on secular ethics and not any particular religious interpretation. Socialism is more an economic than a political system, and seeks to reduce inequalities by ensuring community level cooperative ownership of the inputs and outputs of production – it cares not a hoot whether the worker or entrepreneur says his prayers before going to bed. Given Iqbal’s warped understanding of secularism and socialism, it is not surprising that he could not define himself under either system.

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  • Siddique Malik
    Dec 10, 2012 - 7:06PM

    By providing a few citations without mentioning the context in which Iqbal said those, the writer pretends that he has proved the things he claims he has proved. This is a classic example of believing what one wants to believe, regardless of the reality.
    Siddique Malik, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.Recommend

  • Siddique Malik
    Dec 10, 2012 - 7:11PM

    By providing a few citations without mentioning the context in which Iqbal said those, the writer pretends that he has proved the things he claims he has proved. This is a classic example of believing what one wants to believe, regardless of the reality.
    Siddique Malik, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.

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  • Dec 10, 2012 - 7:24PM

    Two things that fascinate me:

    1) Why does it surprise people that a man who claimed that Muslims and Hindus cannot coexist peacefully, was in fact not a secularist?

    2) Are we a sovereign nation, or just an armed cult of Jinnah / Iqbal? Isn’t it time we stop asking ourselves, “What would men from the 40’s have wanted us to do?” and instead ask, “What actions would serve this country best in the year 2013 and onward?

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  • Falcon
    Dec 10, 2012 - 7:43PM

    @Khurram-
    Very informative article. At least, it seems to be coming from someone who knows what he is talking about. Thanks for sharing the links as well. I would love to spend more time learning about Iqbal.

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  • Qaiser
    Dec 10, 2012 - 8:16PM

    Dear Writer,

    I first question the validity of the the Iqbal statement “…according to the law of Islam there is no distinction between the Church and the State.” coz it may be fabricated , of course he was a better Muslim then me and many others but if he wrote so the above statement then let me tell you he was not a certified Court of law.
    N.B. Renounced, theologists and expounder of Islamic law like Mufti Taqi Usmani has given decree on this issued ” that the head of the state of an Islamic state must be Muslim.

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  • Muhammad Ahsan KHAN
    Dec 10, 2012 - 9:05PM

    Pakistani Secular Scholars cite very often the 11th. August, 1947 speech of Mr. Jinnah where he guarantees the complete religious freedom to the citizens of the state and declares that State has nothing to do with the religion. The problem is that it is only half definition of a Secular State. The other half is that �the religion has nothing to do in the state affair (the system of the government.)�. He always ignored this other half of the secularism.

    The other half is that �the religion has nothing to do in the state affair (the system of the government.)�. He always ignored this other half of the secularism. It is a clear indication that Mr. Jinnah wanted the religion in the state (Government) to govern the people in the name of Allah without the interference of the religious authority. He simply did not want �theocracy�.

    Dr. Iqbal was exactly of the same opinion. He was also a half secular as Mr. Jinnah..

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  • Siddique Malik
    Dec 10, 2012 - 9:56PM

    @Loneliberal PK:
    I fully agree with you: Anybody who would harbor an archaic idea that people of different faiths could not live together could not be a secularist — I would even go another step — or even a democrat. And I also agree with the second argument in your post: This problem afflicts many Pakistanis; they cannot seem to be able to look toward the future.
    Siddique Malik, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.Recommend

  • Falcon
    Dec 10, 2012 - 10:25PM

    @Loneliberal PK:
    My friend…Iqbal died in 1938, the popular sentiment for a separate country of Pakistan picked up around 1940. Iqbal wrote ‘ Saare Jahan se accha Hindustan Hamara’…It was only towards the end of his life that he advocated a separate homeland for Muslims of the sub-continent because of the events that were to a large extent contextual, that was not his ideological position through out life time. There are two ways to study history: to study things as they were or try to retro-fit them in our own ideological mold.

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  • abcde
    Dec 11, 2012 - 12:50AM

    Iqbal has contradictory tendencies because he was himself to a certain extent a confused individual who felt right at home in Europe, but struggled to find a political ideal for India. He is the same person who wrote “Saray jahaan say acha Hindustan Hamara” and later edited it to “Taranah-e-Milli” espousing an Islamic Pakistan, yet he was the same person who said that anybody interpreting his Allahbad speech as a call for an Islamic Homeland was crazy, had “taken leave of his senses.”

    “So what do we want and how can it be achieved?”

    Iqbal can hardly answer this question. Iqbal himself had an idea of an Islamic homeland, and at the same time admitted that a religious unit cannot be bound in geographical limits. He had no idea what he wanted. He loathed the Turks and Ataturk for ending the caliphate, terming them surfs, and look where they are today.

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  • Ahmad Bilal
    Dec 11, 2012 - 8:24AM

    It is indeed a very good initiative by Khurram Ali Shafique. People in Pakistan do not know Iqbal very much. Iqbal needs to be studies and taught in such a way. Our teachers should also spend time to understand Iqbal’s thought.

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  • Farrah Nafis
    Dec 11, 2012 - 4:32PM

    Dear Writer and the Readers,
    I am a novice educationist, loves going through the history. Can’t give very autoritation comments. But want to say that I have not read much about Iqbal, except that which was presented to us in our text books, with the eyes of others. I think the reason why we all have so many contradictions about Iqbal and other leaders of yore years is that we never tried to understand their teachings by ourselves, read ideas given by others and start commenting on them. Iqbal was a great poet; no doubt he has given messages for us in his poetry. If we wanted to get lessons from them we need to read them by ourselves. I like the comments of Muhammad Ahsan Khan on the article.
    Khuram Ali Shafique has so far provided us good history and understanding of Iqbal by his writings. I enjoy his writings. Has introduced Iqbal in understanding terms for all of us.

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  • Dec 11, 2012 - 6:58PM

    Thank you for this very useful article.

    I think it is very telling how the constitutional principles of the founding fathers of Pakistan stand different than subsequent drafts. That, alone, is a subject worthy of much consideration.

    It is an interesting phenomenon that wisdom – such as that given to the world by Allama Iqbal – is often forced to fit into the parameters of the so-called modern mind before it will be given sufficient study. Often, if the fit is not immediately perceived, it will simply be dismissed.

    Thank you for the links. There is a wealth of material there.

    Every voice deserves to be heard. And so, I am very glad that Iqbal is back. I’m ready to hear what he has to say.

    All good wishes,

    robert

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  • muzzammila
    Dec 16, 2012 - 9:10AM

    It is good to hear diverse views about Iqbal. At least people will start thinking about his thoughts other than just repeating his verses on their required places. It don’t think Iqbal was confused in any way but actually it is us who are confused because we don’t see whole of his works as a single line of thought and fail to see the underlying unity.
    Any way it is good to see that a serious discussion has been started about Iqbal in a reputed magazine.

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  • Ahmed
    Dec 18, 2012 - 1:40AM

    Excellent initiative Indeed

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  • Saba
    Jan 3, 2013 - 11:08PM

    The text is devoid of the context and is liked by those surely who are not aware of the work of Iqbal. Saba Iqbal, AustraliaRecommend

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